EFFECTS OF THE CORN-LAW: .
EVERY great controversy has a tendency to expand into a range of discussion too wide to admit of its being viewed as a whole. Minor points are cavilled at, defended, and illustrated with an amplitude of detail that overlays the main question, obscures it, or distracts at- tention from it. Council is darkened by a multiplicity of words. The Corn-law controversy is the reverse of an exception to the general rule : and hence it is useful at times to bring back the mind from its efforts to seize the discussion in all its ramifications and details, and concentrate attention upon the broad simple out- lines of the practical question. For this purpose we propose to consider the Corn-law in three points of view,—first, what are its direct and immediate effects ; second, what are the objects aimed at by those who enacted and those who support it ; third, what would be the consequences of repealing it. All the essential questions involved in the Corn-law discussion seem capable of being embraced under these three heads. Under the first may be shown the ne- cessary workings of the restrictive law. Under the second may be shown the real value of the effects attributed to it by its advo- cates; and the ground thus cleared for deciding whether its alleged advantages are real, or whether, admitting them to be real, they compensate its disadvantages. Under the third will fall to be discussed that class of arguments against a repeal of the law, which rest upon the assumption that, under existing circumstances, its abolition would be productive of more evil than its continu- ance,—an indispensable inquiry, with a view to the manner in which the Corn-law may he repealed with the least possible amount of suffering, seeing that no great change of national policy, however advisable and unavoidable, can be effected without causing inconve- nience to some parties. Our topic today is, the direct and imme- diate effect of the Corn-law : the others shall be discussed in their turn.
The only possible direct and immediate effect of a law restricting the importation of corn, is to diminish the quantity and raise the price of food. All the other effects attributed to it, whether by its friends or its enemies, whether for good or for evil, are secondary, and mere consequences of its inevitable tendency to make food dearer by making it scarcer. It may on the one hand benefit, pro- tect, and encourage national agriculture : but if it does this, it does it by raising the price of the staple product of agriculture— food. It may on the other cumber and impede the development of national commerce: this it does in the first instance by render- ing food scarcer and dearer than it would be under a system of free trade. All the advantages which the advocates of the Corn-law anticipate from it—all the evils which opponents say it must pro- duce—are expected to be brought about by its keeping up the
price of food ; that is, rendering it dearer, because scarcer, than it otherwise would be.
The direct and immediate effect of a restrictive Corn-law, there- fore, is to produce a great evil. The primal curse that man shall eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, is not so trifling a penalty that the difficulty of procuring the means of sustenance should be lightly increased. To diminish the supply of food, is to render it more difficult for all classes to procure a sufficient allowance. To raise the price of food, is to declare that the poor man shall pur- chase less, in order that the rich man may have as much as he wants. A limited supply with high prices forces the labourer, who of all men most needs to have his strength supported by plentiful feeding, to content himself with what is barely adequate to support life. The Corn-law forbids the labourer to eat enough to satisfy his appetite: it enacts that he shall eat only to keep soul and body together—not what is sufficient to give him the strong thewes and cheerful spirits of health, or extinguish at any time the painful cravings of hunger. It is not, however, food alone that is limited in quantity and in- creased in price by the restrictive Corn-law. All the other neces- saries and conveniences of life are diminished in quantity and have their prices heightened by its operation. Our tariff does not con- fine its restrictions to the importation of foreign grain; it throws obstacles in the way of the importation of all other kinds of food. But even though this were not the case, our Corn-law would diminish the quantity brought to market. In all regions without the Tropics and their immediate vicinity, grains—cereals—contain the greatest quantity of nourishment produced at the least expense of labour. Corn being the cheapest kind of food, must of necessity constitute the largest proportion of the total amount consumed by any people. In most countries of Europe, even under the most favourable circumstances, bread—corn in some shape—is the per- manent food, meat only the occasional dainty, of a majority of the community. As the price of corn rises, the less and less meat will be consumed : the use of the luxury will be given up to secure a larger supply of the necessary. As the demand for meat declines, less will be brought to market: farmers cannot afford to rear cattle which they cannot sell. When a farmer rears large herds of cattle, a comparatively small profit on each beast will repay him : when he raises fewer, the profit on each beast must be increased if he is to be paid at all for his trouble. Thus, the mischief of restriction works upwards, and begins to be felt by the classes who in respect of wealth are placed next above the mere labourer. The families of the small capitalists—the small shopkeeper, manufacturers who labour themselves and employ a few journeymen, the builders in secondary towns, widows and maiden ladies who live economically on small annuities—all this class are driven to retrench, to dispense with the use of things which have by custom become necessaries to them, which may be called luxuries by the poor, but to be restricted to which would be deemed hardship by the wealthy.
The same process goes on in the case of all articles of clothing, furniture, &c. The labourer patches his motley raiment for a year longer, in order that the price of a coat or smock-frock may go to increase his slender meals ; his wife and children do the same; they use stools instead of chairs, they eat their dinner off their knees instead of a table ; they sleep on heaps of straw instead of beds; the holes in their windows are stuffed with old hats or old rags ; the little stocks of pots, pans, and plates disappear ; two or three families creep into the house which once was occupied by one. The high price of food sets them upon going without every thing that is not indispensably necessary to support life. Even the decent parlour of the burgher is more scantily fur- nished; his wife and daughters dress more plainly, and wear the same clothes for a longer time. The poor curate, the literary man, the country lawyer and surgeon, all feel the dearth of pro- visions increasing one branch of their annual outlay so much that they must pinch and economize to the uttermost in other respects, in order to make the incomings of the year balance with its out- goings. The effects of this diminished demand for furniture and clothing, upon the tradesmen and manufacturers, is the same that was produced among the graziers by the lessened demand for animal food. In proportion as they make and sell fewer of the articles they deal in, they must raise the prices of what they sell, in order to make enough to live by. The depressing influence of high prices and a short supply of the necessaries and conveniences of life is thus multiplied in two ways : on the one hand, the rise in the price of furniture, clothing, and similar necessaries, increases the pressure felt by all classes from the rise in the price of pro- visions ; on the other, the straits of the dealers in these articles add to the number of painful economizers, and further narrow and derange the markets. The sphere of the mischief goes on widening like the circles that spread from the place where a stone is thrown into a smooth lake. The manufacturers for exportation and the great foreign merchants next begin to feel the effects of a restricted trade in corn. First it becomes impossible to export manufactures to countries which are exclusively engaged in growing corn. They cannot take any thing from us because we cannot take in return the only commodity they have to give in exchange. Next, our dealings with all countries whatever are diminished in extent. The rigid economy which the middle and lower classes have been forced to practice, has di- minished the demand for tea, coffee, sugar, wines, and other luxuries or comforts. It has gone further, and occasioned a falling-off in the demand for the articles manufactured out of foreign woods, minerals, dyes, cotton, silk, &c. The merchant cannot import so much of these articles with profit as he formerly could, and conse-
quently he cannot export the same amount of the manufactures with which they are purchased. The great merchant and manu- facturer are added to the list of those who are forced to economize ; and the expansion of increased poverty from this new centre through all society is fearfully rapid. Not only do the wealthy merchants and manufacturers spend less, they employ fewer hands in the pro- duction of goods for exportation, and they pay those whom they employ at a lower rate. Again, many of them, finding their profits as wholesale dealers daily falling off, devise new ways of employing their money. They find that a large capital em- ployed in the retail trade, on the principle of small profits and quick returns on a large stock of goods, pays better than the wholesale trade. It is owing to this discovery that we have within these few years seen an entirely new class of retail-dealers rise into existence in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, in all the large manufacturing towns, and even in many of second or third- rate importance, who, dealing in an immense variety of articles, are enabled by the great number of their transactions to sell their goods at lower prices than the small retailers can afford, and so are driving the poorer shopkeepers out of the market. Thus the great merchants and manufacturers are forced by their own neces- sities to take away the employment of the labourer and the poorer members of the middle classes, at the very time that the increased price of all the necessaries of life renders steady employment most indispensable to them.
There is yet another way in which the Corn-law contributes to diminish the supply of all commodities, which must not be passed over in silence. It occasions frequent drains of bullion. When- ever there is a deficient harvest, there must be an importation of corn, and that corn must be paid for in money. The coffers of the Bank of England are drained, and the Bank is obliged, in technical language, to "put on the screw." The whole credits and ex- changes of the country are deranged, the operations of the trader and manufacturer are paralyzed. Bankruptcies take place among the traders, one bringing down another. Labourers are thrown out of employment by thousands. As the price of food rises the means of purchasing it are withdrawn.
In all these evils the agricultural classes have their share. The farmer, it may be, gets a higher price for his corn, and the land- lord higher rents. But then, in return, even the farmer and landlord pay dearer for the bread which they and their families consume. They participate to the full extent in the inconvenience occasioned by the increased price and diminished supply of all other articles of consumption—tea, sugar, wine, coffee, clothes, furniture, &c. Their labourers find their wages barely sufficient to supply them with food ; they must go without all the little amenities of life. The manufacturing districts, instead of drawing off the sur- plus supply of labour in the country, regorge upon the rural dis- trict their redundant population, to beat down by their competi- tion the miserable pittance of the field-labourer.
The Corn-law diminishes the wealth not only of Great Britain, but of all countries that trade with her. If we do not take their produce, they must dispense with our goods, or manufacture them for themselves at a higher cost. To the extent to which we are rendered less wealthy by thus shutting our shops against the custom of grain-growing nations, we are rendered less able to purchase from all other nations. We waste, in an attempt to grow dear grain, the labour which, employed in manufactures, would furnish us with the means of purchasing a larger store of cheap grain from abroad; and we thus force the grain-growing countries to waste their labour in making dear goods, which they might purchase cheaply from us. Both our own and the grain-countries are thus made to pay dearer for necessaries, and prevented from acquiring a surplus stock, which might be expended in purchasing luxuries from other nations. The quantity of good things in the world is lessened—the common stock, in which labourers, capitalists, and landlords share, is diminished in all countries. The whole race of mankind is deprived of enjoyments which a wiser policy would place within their reach.
All this suffering is occasioned by the Corn-law : this is the state of things which to a greater or less extent must be produced by all restrictions on the corn-trade for the purpose of raising the price of food. High prices, limited supply, are words easily spoken; and from their vague generality leave no definite image on the mind, to understand and appreciate them aright. Suppose that the advantages which the advocates of a restrictive Corn-law tell us it is calculated to produce were all real, all capable of being accomplished by it—that is a subject we mean to discuss hereafter ; but admitting them to be so, for argument's sake, we must keep steadily in view the price paid for them. Being procured by limiting the quantity of the nation's food and raising its price, they must be purchased at the expense of all that suffering we have indicated rather than described. A law which enacts that the national sup- ply of food shall be limited and its price high, enacts that the sup- ply of all commodities shall be limited and their prices high. It de- crees at the same time that the supply of profitable employment in the nation shall be limited and its price low. The Corn-law inflicts upon the whole nation and every class in the nation a sentence of permanent poverty. It has filled the roads of our agricultural districts with men, women, and children, breaking stones amid all the incle- mencies of the worst weather ; it has filled the streets of our manu- facturing towns with swarms of men, women, and children, depend- ent upon a precarious supply of employment ; it has driven the "looped and windowed raggedness" of the labourer to starve in huts by the wayside, which do not exclude the weather, or in cellars in the inmost recesses of the close and squalid alleys of large towns. It has rendered the lives of the industrious middle-classes one long and hopeless struggle to escape from bank- ruptcy ; it has stretched them throughout their lives upon a mental rack, to which physical suffering is light in comparison. Like a cancer or a plague-spot, the evil has crept over the whole surface of our society, is eating its way into the very vitals, and extending its contagious influence all around. The restrictions upon the importation of food keep the whole people poor, and the poor are ever reckless and improvident. Such laws demoralize as well as expose to physical and moral suffering ; they sap and undermine the national strength.
Next week we will inquire what are the counterbalancing bene- fits which the advocates of the Corn-law say it confers upon the nation. They may be real, and in that case are entitled to have their due weight assigned to them. But the price paid for them is an element which must enter into our calculations. The rea- soning is fallacious which paints in glowing terms the advantages in view, and glosses over the sacrifice by which these are to be at- tained under vague epithets which convey no tangible idea. We have placed before our readers a harsh but unexaggerated picture of the direct and necessary effects of the Corn-law : in our next number we will inquire whether the benefits aimed at by those who enacted it are worth the expense of so much suffering.